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Salisbury students settle lawsuit against police officer, city

Four Salisbury University students who sued the city and one of its police officers for alleged discriminatory and harassing policing practices have settled their cases, according to electronic court filings.

Curtis Adams, Travis Guthrie, Abdi Geleta and Eric Kulge claimed alleged police’s policies allowed for the excessive use of force, baseless arrests and other harassment disproportionately against Salisbury students.

Details about the settlement are confidential but the students “believe the outcome is fair,” according to Luke A. Rommel, the attorney for the students.

According to the lawsuit, the plaintiffs were in a group of about 25 people who had congregated in a parking lot by a restaurant near the school in May 2014 when police officers, including defendant Justin Aita, arrived to disperse the crowd.

As the students headed back toward the school via a tunnel under Route 13, they claimed Aita grabbed Adams and threw him to the ground without provocation. Guthrie, Geleta and Kluge were similarly attacked, they said.

Adams, Guthrie and Geleta were criminally charged with failure to obey a reasonable and lawful order and held in jail overnight but were ultimately found not guilty in separate jury trials. Kluge was never charged, according to the lawsuit.

The students filed suit in September 2014.

“The process was very demanding upon my clients, especially the criminal jury trials,” Rommel, of Rommel and Associates PC in Salisbury said via email Monday. “My clients have since graduated college and look forward to moving forward with their respective careers.”

Attorney John F. Breads Jr., who represents the city and Aita, did not respond to a request for comment Monday. Both the city and Aita denied the students’ claims.

Patterns and practices

Last September, U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett denied a motion to dismiss the case for failure to cite specific instances to show a pattern, finding the plaintiffs’ amended complaint did sufficiently allege plausbile illegal patterns and practices.

The complaint alleges police have seized and detained Salisbury University students for “no lawful reason” and used force “when no threat or need existed.”

The department has “consistently demonstrated a pattern of wrongfully targeting and arresting college students for trivial or minor offenses, or offenses that did not happen at all,” according to the complaint.

Most of the offenses charged are difficult to disprove, including obstructing and hindering or failure to obey a lawful order, according to the complaint.

“The Salisbury Police Department also has demonstrated a systemic pattern and practice of writing fictional, post-dated or grossly exaggerated police narratives to support the arrests of these students, including the plaintiffs in this litigation,” the complaint states. “Most of the offenses charged are relatively minor but difficult to disprove, such as ‘obstructing and hindering’ or ‘failure to obey a lawful order.”

The students sought compensation for their claimed physical, economic and emotional injuries, the costs for attorneys in defending against the “fictional” criminal charges and the continued distress from the arrests.

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Curtis Adams et al. v. Justin Aita et al.

Court: U.S. District Court in Baltimore

Case No.: 1:14-cv-02793-RDB

Judge: Richard D. Bennett

Outcome: Settlement

Award: Confidential

Dates:

Incident: May 3, 2014

Suit filed: Sept. 2, 2014

Disposition: Sept. 26, 2016

Plaintiffs’ Attorneys: Luke A. Rommel of Rommel and Associates P.C. in Salisbury

Defense Attorneys: John F. Breads Jr. of the Local Government Insurance Trust in Hanover


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